Down the ages: India’s boxers not restricted by boundaries
Over the years, the exploits of its boxers have earned Bhiwani the title ‘mini Cuba’. Whether it’s the Olympics or any other international meet, Haryana is the biggest contributor to the men’s national squad, and within the state, it’s Bhiwani that rules.
In the early days, Kolkata and Mumbai dominated, and the sport spread to other parts from here. Mumbai was the first city in the country to have a boxing association with the Bombay Presidency Amateur Boxing Federation coming up in 1925.
India made its boxing debut at the Olympics during the 1948 Games and was represented by Rabin Bhatta, Babu Lal, Benoy Bose, Gene Raymond, Robert Cranston, John Nuttall and Mac Joachim.
Mumbai had its share of glory when Ron Norris became the first Indian to reach quarterfinals at the 1952 Olympics. The cities lost prominence and it was after a gap that Mohammed Ali Qamar of Kolkata won gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Paresh Lal Roy popularised the sport in Kolkata and it was his hard work that saw the city send the most number of boxers to the 1948 Olympics.
Before independence, boxing was pursued by the Army but Roy’s efforts saw the sport spread among civilians.
He opened a training centre while working for Bengal Railways, and organised the first inter-railway championship in 1928. The same year he founded the Bengal Boxing Association, 21 years before the national body was formed.
Like in hockey, Anglo-Indians had a big role to play. The 1948 Olympic boxing team had four members from the community --- Gene Raymond, Robert Cranston, John Nuttall and Mac Joachim. At 1952, Ron Norris and Oscar Ward were part of the four-member squad.
After Norris made the quarterfinals of the 1952 Helsinki Games, Gurcharan Singh replicated the feat at the 2000 Olympics.
“Norris learned boxing while he was at school in Mumbai and went on to represent the country at the 1952 Olympics,” recalled 76-year-old Wendy Norris, his younger sister.
Wendy represented the country in hockey on the 1956 tour to Australia. Father Rex was a 1928 Olympic hockey gold medallist.
“All my four brothers were good but the eldest Havelock was the best and represented the country, but at that time Olympics were not held,” Wendy told HT from Middlesex.
Despite the performance at the 1952 Olympics, there was no Indian boxer at the Games from 1956 to 1968. Padam Bahadur Mall won the country’s first gold at the 1962 Asian Games and was a medal prospect at the 1964 Olympics. Differences between the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) and Indian Amateur Boxing Federation, the national body, spoilt his chances.
The IOA wanted to send Mall to Tokyo, but the boxing body wanted three boxers. Since a compromise couldn’t be reached, no boxer was sent.
Indian boxers were back at the Olympics in 1972, and the Army took the lead by sending C Narayanan, M Venu and Mehtab Singh to the Games. In the next three editions, most of the boxers were from the Army.
The 1962 Asian Games champion, Padam Bahadur, learned the sport after joining the Army, and Hawa Singh, one of the best heavyweight boxers of Asia, won gold at the 1966 and 1970 Asiad.
Dingko sets trend
Before India won Olympic medals in boxing (Vijender in 2008 and Mary Kom in 2012), the defining moment came in 1998 when Navy boxer Dingko Singh ended a 16-year-old Asian Games gold-medal drought.
The medal also changed the face of boxing in the North East. The country’s first woman Olympic medallist in boxing, Mary Kom, who also hails from Manipur, took up the sport after being inspired by Dingko’s feat.
Suranjoy Singh, the 2010 Asian Games medallist, London Olympian Devendro Singh and Rio squad member Shiva Thapa are part of the boxing revolution in the North East.
Later, Mary Kom and L Sarita’s World Championship triumphs inspired girls in the region to take up the sport seriously.
It was because of Hawa Singh and Mehtab Singh that Bhiwani came into the limelight. After retiring from the army, Hawa joined the Sports Authority of India’s (SAI) Bhiwani centre in 1985 and was a coach there till 1996. He had a role in building the centre’s rich legacy.
Of the four-member squad at the 2004 Athens Olympics, Akhil Kumar, Vijender Singh and Jitender Kumar were the products of the SAI centre in Bhiwani and Bhiwani Boxing Club (BBC).
At Beijing, where Vijender scripted history by becoming the first Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal, Akhil, Vijender, Jitender and Dinesh Kumar were from BBC. Because of Bhiwani the sport spread to other parts of the state and now Haryana churns out a steady stream of boxers.
At Rio, of the three boxers, two are from Haryana. Vikas Krishan is from Bhiwani while Manoj Kumar is from Kaithal. Shiva Thapa hails from Assam.